Sat, Jul 29, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Shiver me timbers, pirates are a real threat

The pirates we know from stories are picturesque adventurers and colorful rogues. But with a new type of buccaneer taking to the high seas, the modern reality of piracy is a good deal less romantic

By Patrick Barkham  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The sun had set as a large container ship, the Australian Star, ploughed sedately across the South China Sea, its cargo bound for New Zealand. Relieved that his vessel had safely navigated the dangerous Straits of Singapore, Captain Peter Newton left the bridge for his cabin, where he began unpacking his bags. As the ship passed the Indonesian island of Bintan, the curtain at his open door twitched.

Nine armed men burst in. A machete was held to his neck; his hands were bound with rope. In a clipped English accent, the gang leader told him that if he didn't open the ship's safe -- or if he triggered its alarm -- he would be killed.

Once the pirates had pocketed the US$20,000 they found in the safe, Newton was led out on deck. He feared he would be pushed over the side. With the rest of the crew unaware of the stealthy raid, the pirates descended to their small craft using a rope they had slung over the stern of the ship. The last man turned to shove the captain, who fled to safety.

Portrayed as swashbuckling outlaws, pirates have basked in a certain rough glamour ever since the days of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Pirate myths are adored by Hollywood and favored at fancy-dress parties, but as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest sets box-office records this summer, the real-life heirs of Jack Sparrow are profiting from their plunder on the high seas as never before.

Attacks by all-too-real modern pirates have increased by 168 percent in the past 10 years. Armed with ship tracking systems, speedboats and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), these seagoing bandits are enjoying an unlikely renaissance.

Since Captain Newton was attacked in 1992, there have been 3,583 attacks by pirates worldwide, causing 340 deaths. In November last year, a ship called Seabourn Spirit was ambushed off the coast of Somalia. Pirates with RPGs in two boats were repelled when the crew directed a "sonic blaster" at their attackers.

A British parliamentary transport select committee report on piracy this month was damning. Practical government action is "woefully lacking," concluded Gwyneth Dunwoody, the chair of the committee.

"The government does not even know the scale of the problem. That is failure by any measure," she said.

Robbery at sea entered a golden age during the 17th century, when European powers jostled to colonize the Caribbean. Pirates such as Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Calico" Jack Rackham, Mary Read and Cofresi attacked heavily laden trading ships, taking advantage of the political vacuum and a secluded coastline perfect for ambushes.

As the age of empire took hold and naval forces were deployed to impose order on the high seas, piracy lost its vigor; now, with imperial decline, it is regaining strength. A new configuration of conditions -- from the cost-cutting of the modern shipping industry to the absence of international arrangements to tackle piracy -- is aiding modern pirates. The annual cost of reported incidents is estimated to be US$16 billion.

The center of modern-day piracy is the South China Sea, scene of more than a third of last year's 266 reported raids. The Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, is also a favoured haunt. Waters around failing states are particularly dangerous. The Indian Ocean off Somalia is home to a special brand of piracy, in which ships are hijacked and crews are kidnapped and ransomed.

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